RetroSpective: ‘Phantasy Star IV’
You should seriously rethink your geek cred if you haven’t played this gameon April 24, 2014 at 8:00 am
I’m going to say that again. I want it to really sink in.
“Phantasy Star IV” is the BEST 16-bit RPG.
The SNES may have a more robust RPG catalogue with far more consistent quality, one dominated almost completely by Squaresoft, but “PS IV” is superior.
“Final Fantasy VI” was the big RPG blockbuster of its day. “Secret of Mana” had that cool co-op thing going on. “Super Mario RPG” took a novel concept and made a brilliant game out of it. “Chrono Trigger”, well… ”Chrono Trigger” is probably second. “Phantasy Star IV”? That’s first.
The competition is fierce, I know. I also know that the aforementioned games are all well known classics. “Phantasy Star IV”? Not so much. That’s a real shame, because it was the first, and only, game in the series to get it completely right. Every game before had problems and every game since has had “Online” tacked on the end of its name. It was a true swan song for the series and the best that I can imagine.
If you don’t know much about the “Phantasy Star” series – and I suspect you may not – let me explain a little bit about why “Phantasy Star IV” is such a wonderful accomplishment.
The first “Phantasy Star” was released on the Sega Master System in 1987. It was a hugely impressive feat for the time. Compare it to similar games released around then, and it blows them away visually, in both graphics and world design. It was incredibly fresh and still is, as sci-fi RPGs are still relatively uncommon.
It also had a female protagonist, which was completely unheard of then. Sure, “Metroid” had Samus, but she wasn’t revealed to be female until you beat the game. Alys is your gal right from the beginning.
Surprisingly, the game holds up pretty well by today’s standards, but it’s held back mostly by it’s archaic first-person dungeon exploration with no visual cues to use as markers and no in-game map.
“Phantasy Star II” was one of the most expensive games released when it came out on the Genesis at $80 in 1989. You want to complain about current video game prices? Try living back then, making less money, and paying the same price we’re paying now, if not more, for games. Really puts things into perspective.
The game was big and ambitious, though. So big, that it actually came with a guide. And you needed it, because the game was cryptic and has some of the most infamous dungeon mazes in RPG history.
While it was amazing in 1989, “Phantasy Star II” hasn’t aged all that well. The extremely slow walking speed, paired with the GIGANTIC dungeons and brutally harsh encounter rate, means that this game can feel excruciatingly tedious. Simply put, the game is a slog.
It may have been a pioneer in the genre, especially in storytelling, as it did some incredible things with its characters, but most people would find it too difficult and tiring to put up with now.
Then “Phantasy Star III” came out and it was TERRIBLE. Well, terrible really isn’t fair because it’s beyond terrible. The failures of this game are so catastrophic that it makes it look like Russia’s decision to invade Crimea was a sensible thing to do.
It does have one interesting mechanic, in that you play through three generations. You choose a wife, have a child, then he chooses a wife, has a child, then you play as him. What wife you choose changes what children you get. That’s neat. Everything else? Complete trash.
It’s ugly, has a soundtrack that can only have been composed by a drunk baby with a synthesizer, it’s boring, and has the most agonizingly slow walking speed you’ve ever seen in a game.
I would rather let a horde of vagrants, shaky-handed and drug withdrawn, lather Marmite on my entire body and shave every inch of me with a rusty razor blade than play “Phantasy Star III” ever again. But, for only releasing a year after “PS II”, its abysmal quality shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.
So, when 1993 rolled around and “Phantasy Star IV” was released – once again, on Genesis – it didn’t exactly get a parade thrown for it. The SNES was in full swing and “Final Fantasy II/IV” was already out. In the US, “Phantasy Star IV” was released in 1995, one year after “Final Fantasy III/VI” and “Secret of Mana”. No one was looking to their Genesis for RPGs. They were perfectly happy with the Scrooge McDuck level of wealth of them on the SNES.
Editor’s Note: Released in 1993 for Mega Drive (Genesis) in Japan. European and NA release was 1995. Know as “Phantasy Star: The end of the millennium” in Japan, because it wouldn’t be a JRPG without a overly long title.
So, “PS IV” had a lot going against it. The name wasn’t well known; its obscurity was compounded by releasing on a system that wasn’t known for RPGs. It’s no surprise that it’s only regarded as a classic among those in the know. But man, what a game most people have missed!
The very moment you power the game up, that signature sound of the Genesis’ hard and crunchy music immediately begins to pump pure adrenaline into your ears. They didn’t mess around with that harmonic “Seeeeegaaaaa” jingle. Nope, right in your face, right away.
Long introductions to set the world up and explain what the characters are doing? Nope, you’re in the middle of a job… as bounty hunters. To be more precise, a female bounty hunter named Alys Brangwyn, a dual-wielding boomerangstress, and her partner, Chaz Ashley. He has a sword.
What I really like about the first few minutes of this game is that it lets you know, right away, that this game isn’t here to waste your time. You are in your first dungeon almost immediately and that’s WITH plot and character development.
It takes this game minutes to set-up what other RPGs can often take HOURS to do. And don’t think it’s because it expects you to have prior knowledge of the universe from the previous games. It doesn’t. It’s not necessary to enjoy the game or understand what’s going on. It doesn’t need all of the extraneous dialogue and world-building that so many other RPGs think they need. It lets the environments and the natural progression of the plot fill you in on what you need to know. I like that.
Too many games rely on the thought that crafting a complex and wordy narrative as the only way to truly involve and immerse the player. That doing something simpler would be too boring, too safe. To me, that’s untrue. “Phantasy Star IV”, and to be fair most other older RPGs, got along just fine without weighing themselves down with hours of poorly acted cutscenes and dialogue that constantly explains what has already been explained to you eight times prior.
But don’t think “Phantasy Star IV” takes a “simpler” route for storytelling. When it finally does lay it on you, you get to see it told through beautifully crafted comic book style paneling. This is one of my favorite things about the game. You don’t see your low res sprite running around, making over-exaggerated expressions to sell the story. You can actually see the pain, anguish, or joy on character’s faces. You get a better sense of the weight in scenes and a better sense of how characters relate to one another.
Scenes in 16-bit RPGs using the sprites is fine, with their preset amount of animations they can do that the devs force to work in a variety of different situations, but the way “PS IV” approaches it is so much more elegant and stylistic.
And don’t even think that it just works well “for the time”, because many modern JRPGs cut more corners nowadays than they did back then, often using anime cutouts that only have a few different expressions. *Yawn* That’s so lazy and it’s unappealing to look at. It’s dull, boring, and does a such a poor job of selling the story.
“PS IV”’s approach to storytelling was and remains unique to this day. It’s not just the way the story is told that’s effective… the narrative isn’t too shabby, itself. It has a great and captivating first half (and a so-so second half, if I’m being honest). It’s not bad, but the first half is so good and they were never going to be able to live up to it. In exchange, the scope of the adventure really opens up at that point, because you get to start exploring a solar system, visiting different planets and space stations. This kind of thing still feels exciting, even today.